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As analysis for his starring role in David Cronenberg’s 2007 blur Eastern Promises, Viggo Mortensen beatific the administrator a multivolume book: Russian Bent Tattoos, a accumulating of bastille anatomy art from the London-based clear architecture and publishing aggregation FUEL. Mortensen thumbed through its pages because he knew, arena an advancing bandit called Nikolai in the Russian immigrant abyss of London, that his character’s ink would acquaint his story—what bastille he had been to, what affectionate of bent he was, what fights he had won and lost. Russian bastille tattoos are, afterwards all, a arrangement of abstruse language.

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During the film’s best belled scene, aback Nikolai takes a affair in a beef room, a Kurdish accessory animadversion that Semyon, an aged bang-up in the Russian mafia, about “recommends [a bathhouse] for business meetings, because you can see what tattoos a man has.” Aback two assassins attack to annihilate Nikolai, he wards them off absolutely in the nude, and seeing all the images on his beef adds to the abomination of the bootless murder. Mortensen had insisted on actuality naked; he had done his boom research.

Now the bodies abaft Mortensen’s antecedent absolute accept appear a new photobook, Russian Bent Tattoos and Arena Cards by Arkady Bronnikov. As the appellation promises, it explores the intimate, overlapping history of tattoos and agenda amateur in Soviet-era prisons. But the pictures additionally accommodate a glimpse of a absent culture, and of what activity abaft confined was absolutely like in the old USSR, breadth a simple d could put you on the angle for accession else’s death—or amount you an absolute eye.

VICE bent up with Damon Murray, one of FUEL’s founders, to apprentice about the accord amid these tattoos and arena cards, how they were made, what was at pale if you were a Russian bent bank central prison, and why this ability has about vanished.

VICE: How—and why—were these arena cards absolutely constructed? Damon Murray: Both the arena and authoritative of cards in Soviet prisons and in the “zone,” as the correctional activity camps were known, was forbidden. If a agenda (or, worse, a accomplished deck) was discovered, the amends was severe: To be complex in a agenda d was agnate to defying the administration, arresting alcohol, or injecting drugs, and was usually punished with six months in an a cell. However, such penalties didn’t dissuade prisoners from bank with cards.

The cards themselves had to be fabricated covertly from scratch. This awful accomplished and arduous action began by afraid two bedding of cardboard calm with cement fabricated from chewed bastille bread, anesthetized through linen. These alert bedding were again bedfast beneath bottle until dried, aback they were cut to size.

The aing date was to stencil. This was the aboriginal befalling to mark them, so they ability be “read” by their owner. The buyer assured the blazon of arrangement and acrylic he preferred. Soot was about acclimated for the atramentous and a admixture of claret and aliment cement for the red. (Blood was adopted as it broiled darker than added bastille inks.) The intention, here, was to accomplish it as adamantine as accessible for the adversary to appreciate the cards. In addition, arrangement ability again be added to the ink, so the buyer of the agenda could apperceive the amount afore accepting to about-face it over. Afterwards that, the aback of the agenda was stenciled as well. Once the backpack was absolutely dry, the cards were fanned out, and the edges acicular with a allotment of glass. This provided anniversary agenda with a baby new paintable breadth about the edge, breadth more—nearly undetectable—marks could be fabricated to the blueprint of the owner.

What were the stakes of the games—what did bodies absolutely action with? Usually, the stakes and adjustment of acquittal were agreed on afore the game. Tea or cigarettes ability be wagered, but additionally fingers, ears, eyes, or alike the lives of added inmates—or the activity of the amateur himself. Abyss who gambled their anatomy genitalia in a agenda d would do so to authenticate their backbone of spirit, bravado, and ruthlessness. Aback a bandit absent his stake, whatever it was, the account had to be adored immediately. If he reneged, he would be labelled a suka (“bitch”) and knifed. In one accurate case, a bent who absent his larboard duke in a agenda d couldn’t accompany himself to cut it off and approved to run away. The authorities recaptured him and had him transferred to addition camp, but his fate was sealed. In his absence, he was bedevilled by a skhodka (“a affair of accepted thieves”). The abyss begin out breadth he had been beatific and abiding for the book to be agitated out there.

So what, ultimately, did these tattoos beggarly to Russians in prison—did they announce a assemblage allegiance, acquaint a story, mark activity events? All of those?The tattoos in this book are about absent in this anatomy today. That’s to say, they don’t backpack the aforementioned significance, because the punishments that fabricated them “valuable” are no best enforced. In the Soviet era, a thief’s tattooed anatomy showed his cachet aural the thieves’ world. The tattoos of a vor v zakone [“thief in law” or “legitimate thief”] functioned in a agnate way to a delineation of a full-dress uniform, covered with regalia, decorations, and badges of rank and distinction. In thieves’ jargon, the acceptable set of tattoos was accepted as a frak s ordenami (“a appendage covering with decorations”). These tattoos conveyed secret, allegorical information, which at aboriginal glance may accept appeared accustomed to everyone—a naked woman, a devil, a afire candle, and so forth.

These images embodied a thief’s complete account record, his absolute biography. They abundant his achievements and failures, his promotions and demotions. They told the “truth” about that inmate, if you will. They were his authorization and case file, the key to his survival. As anon as a accustomed bedfellow entered the accumulation citizenry of the zone, they bound accomplished the thieves were in charge. Then, they would archetype both their tattoos and mannerisms in an attack to drag their status. For self-protection, they bare to appearance themselves to be exceptional, experienced, brave, and acclimatized men.

The catechism asked by accepted thieves of any new accession was: “Do you angle by your tattoos?” If the tattoos did not reflect his rank, the captive was affected to aish them with a knife, sandpaper, a atom of glass, or a agglomeration of brick. He was appropriately beaten, raped, or killed. In the apple of thieves, a man with no tattoos had no amusing cachet whatsoever.

So with that close allegorical anatomy already in place, what do cards add to it?Groups of inmates belonged to altered masti (“suits”), and these agenda syms were represented in their corresponding tattoos. The best blue-blooded of the cards were the baron of clubs and spades. The capital syms of a accepted bandit were apparel of clubs or spades. In contrast, the red apparel were the atomic noble. Stool pigeons belonged to the “chummy” suit, represented by a diamond, while the attribute of hearts adapted the agent into a “woman” in the zone. Both of these syms were forcibly applied, depriving the agent of all status, arch to violence. These signs served to accomplish the ability of the thieves, acting as a admonishing to the blow of the bastille population. Should added inmates accessory with them, their own cachet would be “lowered.”

Allegorical images were acclimated aural the accent of the tattoos to aback belletrist about the bearer. For example, images of coition would be tattooed on the anatomy of a bandit who bootless to pay his debt at cards. These tattoos were a punishment. Meanwhile, a bandit who was a accomplished agenda aciculate ability accept had the syms of clubs, spades, diamonds, and hearts tattooed beyond the knuckles. In Russian, the aboriginal belletrist of any accustomed clothing comprise the byword Kogda Vyidu Budu Chelovekom (“I’ll be a man aback I get out”), acknowledging the bearer’s ambition to chase a bent path.

How did Bronnikov, a criminalistics able aforetime of the Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs whose assignment comprises abundant of your accumulating and who authored the book, aggregate such an all-encompassing arrangement of boom pictures? So allotment of his duties complex visiting correctional institutions in the Ural and Siberia regions. It was there that he interviewed, aggregate information, and took photographs of convicts and their tattoos, architecture one of the best absolute athenaeum of the phenomenon. This absolute was alone for badge use, to added the compassionate of the accent of these tattoos and to act as an aid in the alarm of abyss in the field.

These cards, however, are not from the Bronnikov collection, but accept been accumulated by FUEL over the accomplished decade. Because they were confiscated and destroyed by the bastille authorities, aboriginal decks are difficult to access and about incomplete. Originals are usually characterized by their baby size, about the array of a packet of Prima cigarettes. Such cigarette packets were frequently acclimated to abundance the cards as they were absolute camouflage.

Has boom and agenda ability in Russian prisons afflicted afterwards the atrophy of the Soviet Union? By which I mean: Is this arrangement of affair still accident at all? To acknowledgment this catechism fully, we accept to go aback to the 1950s, aback the thieves cipher (the set of rules or understandings by which they led their lives) was at its best stringent. At that time, the abuse for cutting a boom you hadn’t acceptable ability be a beating, rape, or alike death. By the backward 1960s, these atrocious retributions had angry adjoin the accepted thieves. There were so abounding abashed prisoners (inmates who had been bargain in cachet by rape) that the authorities acclimated them as a weapon adjoin the accepted thieves, who were befuddled into beef busy by their victims.

Eventually a board of thieves anesthetized the “no abuse with the penis” rule, which banned any of their cardinal from blurred (i.e. raping) prisoners in this way. This led to an abatement of astriction and the bit-by-bit dematerialization of punishments for cutting actionable tattoos. The appearance for tattooing swept through adolescent prisons, whose inmates covered themselves with every architecture and inscription, including brand thieves’ tattoos. Realizing it was absurd to accomplish their laws on the adolescence who were so in awe of them, the thieves gave up—allowing the abandon to boom whatever they liked.

With the accession of perestroika (the “restructuring” led by Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet government), abounding boom parlors opened beyond Russia and the absolute cardinal of tattooed inmates essentially increased. Drugs additionally had an aftereffect on the tattooing attitude in prisons, acceptance inmates who dealt in this advantageous barter to buy whatever boom designs they desired.

Contemporary Russian abyss are abundant beneath acceptable to be tattooed. Breadth ahead these marks acted as a assurance that the agent belonged to the degree of thieves and adhered to the thieves’ code, today they act as both a adjustment of identification for law administration and a albatross to the business world, the absolute aspiration of the avant-garde Russian criminal. With so abounding able boom parlors, it’s acceptable added attenuate to see aboriginal bastille tattoos. The tattoos of today’s Russian abyss are added acceptable to be done in a able flat and backpack claimed meanings, not those of a austere cipher that can be accepted by others.

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This commodity originally appeared on VICE US.

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